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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Analysis: Iran’s Upcoming Election Likely Will Only Bring More of the Same


On May 19, Iranians will go to the polls to elect their next president. The elections are hardly democratic: several hundred have submitted applications to run, but only a handful will be approved by the Council of Guardians, a clerical body controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The few approved candidates all support the basic framework of the Islamic Republic: ultimate authority must reside in one Islamic jurisprudent, the Supreme Leader. Differences are principally over the best strategy to preserve this system. Ideological hardliners believe the principal threat comes from western values and culture, and seek to minimize interaction with the West. Others, economic pragmatists, believe the principal threat comes from economic stagnation, requiring Iran to open up its trade relations. But all appear to support Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region and are likely to continue Iran’s malign behavior and destabilizing activities.


While new candidates may yet emerge, the stage appears set for a showdown between incumbent Hassan Rouhani, an economic pragmatist, and Ebrahim Raisi, a mid-level cleric who is an ideological hardliner reportedly close to Khamenei.


Rouhani is no moderate.


Iranian elections are often framed as a contest between moderates and hardliners, but such distinctions have little practical meaning in terms of Iran’s behavior.


Rouhani, a loyal supporter of the Iranian revolution, served as the leader of Iran’s most important national security body from 1989 to 2005, a time that witnessed terrorist attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets in Buenos Aires; assaults on U.S. military forces in Saudi Arabia; assassinations of dissidents in Europe; crushing of student protests at home; and efforts to cover up Iran’s nuclear program. Rouhani has even bragged about previously deceiving the West during nuclear negotiations. In his 2011 memoir he openly stated, “While we were talking to the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in Isfahan.”


For Rouhani, the nuclear negotiations have always been a means to an end—to secure Iran’s economic viability. His reputation as a moderate stems solely from his unfulfilled promises to moderate the regime’s oppressive nature and his willingness to engage in talks with the United States to negotiate the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But throughout his presidency, which began in 2013, Iran’s malign behavior has only worsened:

  • Iran has tested more than 15 ballistic missiles since the JCPOA was announced. 

  • Iranian support for the Assad regime has increased, with Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) personnel taking an active role in the fighting in Syria. 

  • Tehran continues to fund and arm Hezbollah, which now possesses approximately 150,000 rockets, thousands of which are capable of striking any location in Israel. 

  • Iran’s brutal repression of its own people has continued unabated. The number of executions in Iran has surged as Iran continues to jail political dissidents.

Iranian elections should therefore be viewed as a competition between more and less pragmatic hardliners. The pragmatic Rouhani believes that opening up Iran towards Western business can help preserve the Iranian regime and protect the revolution. Other more ideological hardliners like Ahmadinejad do not.

Iran’s political system is not democratic.


Iran’s ultraconservative Guardian Council vets presidential candidates. Hundreds of candidates typically submit their names in each election, but most are barred by the Council from running; only a handful of the most loyal supporters of the Iranian revolution are permitted to do so.


That has not stopped two camps from emerging within the Iranian political system: the ideological hardliners who wish to see ultimate power rest in the hands of the supreme leader, and the economic pragmatists who would prefer the Iranian parliament to exert some decision-making authority. Neither of these camps can be reasonably considered “moderate.” They promote different approaches to protecting the Iranian regime and sustaining the Islamic Revolution, but neither wishes to see the current system dissolve.


Rouhani would never have been permitted to run for president had he not passed extensive vetting procedures designed to weed out insufficiently loyal candidates. He has consistently presented his actions within the context of preserving the Iranian revolution, and has been praised by the Supreme Leader for his loyalty. 


The Candidates Thus Far


Until recently, Iranian President Rouhani, a member of the Islamic Republican Party, appeared to be cruising towards re-election in the May 19 Iranian elections. Challengers from the ideological hardliner camp had failed to produce a clear candidate early in the election cycle capable of challenging him. And muted criticism from Khamenei did not seem sufficient to diminish his chances. 


In the past few weeks, however, the situation has begun to change with the entrance of Khamenei-favorite Ebrahim Raisi. Raisi’s candidacy may prove to be consequential. Khamenei recently appointed Raisi to lead Astan Quds Razavi, the largest charitable foundation in Iran with an estimated annual income of $210 billion. This move was designed to bolster Raisi’s national profile; observers believe this signals that he might one day emerge as Khamenei’s successor.


Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sought to run in the election, a move that was somewhat surprising, given that Khamenei had publicly pushed him not to run. He was ultimately disqualified by the Guardian Council. Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was similarly disqualified from running in the 2013 presidential election.


Khamenei would not mind a Rouhani victory.


Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding in Iranian election analysis is the desire to view it as a zero-sum game between those viewed as “moderates” and Khamenei: i.e., characterizing a Rouhani victory as a loss for Khamenei. Proponents of this view point to Khamenei’s Nowruz (New Year’s) speech this year, which focused on the economy and criticized insufficient progress under President Rouhani, despite the promised windfall from JCPOA sanctions relief. However, Khamenei’s mild criticism cannot be taken as assurance that he will oppose Rouhani.


Economic growth has been slower than Tehran hoped, yet the 2015 nuclear deal has still provided a substantial financial windfall for the Iranian leadership, and especially the IRGC. Khamenei’s regional priorities, such as propping up the Assad regime and arming Hezbollah, are proceeding apace. Rouhani’s term as president has therefore played out nicely for Khamenei.


Any attempt to overtly steer the election could also backfire for Khamenei. To successfully sway the vote, he would need to utilize a significant range of resources. For example, he would have to task regime militias to distribute leaflets on behalf of a favored candidate, drive up voter turnout in conservative strongholds, and suppress voter turnout in pro-Rouhani areas. Any of these tactics risks unleashing an uprising if the vote is deemed rigged; Khamenei is unlikely to risk a repeat of the “Green Revolution”—the mass demonstrations that followed Ahmadinejad’s 2009 reelection.


Finally, every incumbent Iranian president has “won” reelection since the early 1980s, largely due to the recognition on Khamenei’s part that institutional continuity benefits his regime’s stability.


The JCPOA will likely remain in place, regardless of who wins.


Much of the concern regarding the Iranian presidential election rests on the notion that the future of the JCPOA is entirely contingent on a Rouhani reelection. But there is little evidence to back up this assertion. Despite his harsh rhetoric, Khamenei has long touted “heroic flexibility” as a means of preserving the revolution. He is well aware that the JCPOA has merely delayed Iran’s nuclear program, creating a path to an internationally legitimized nuclear program after the initial timeframe of the deal has expired. Khamenei also knows that the JCPOA has not only allowed, but facilitated Iran’s regional assertiveness and ballistic missile launches. In short, with the deal now in place, Tehran has little incentive to change or back away from it, whether or not Rouhani wins reelection.


The real question: Who will be the next supreme leader?


The looming question in Iranian politics is not who will be president, but who will succeed the 77-year-old Khamenei. Formally, the next supreme leader will be chosen by the Assembly of Experts; the behind-the-scenes battle to choose Khamenei’s successor has already begun.


Both Khamenei and the IRGC have reportedly been pushing for Raisi. Raisi would be a clear ally for the IRGC in its attempts to stifle dissent and Khamenei would likely feel that his legacy was secure with Raisi as at the helm. 


A Raisi loss at the presidential ballot box, though, could put such a plan in jeopardy. The prize of a four-year term as president of Iran pales in comparison to securing selection as the next Supreme Leader. It is not yet clear whether Khamenei and the IRGC are raising Raisi’s name as a means of playing the long game—floating Raisi as a potential presidential candidate to boost him in the eventual selection of the next Supreme Leader.


The Bottom Line


Hassan Rouhani is still the favorite to win the presidency, but others could topple him. Raisi can prevail if Khamenei fully backs him. Other candidates may create an even more muddled picture. Unfortunately, no matter who wins, Iran’s malign behavior both at home and abroad is unlikely to change.  


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